An impulse to self-reflection on the question of legitimate and appropriate agency in post-conflict societies with an emphasis on foreign cultural, professional, and scientific post-conflict activism in Ukraine.
by Max Doering
Even though it might or might not be way to early to grant the label „post-conflict“ to Ukraine, post-conflict activism, meaning governmental and/or non-governmental actors, who engage in civilian (as opposed to diplomatic or military) means of conflict and post-conflict management, has already started it’s work in Ukraine, dealing with a variety of aspects of this conflict stretching from humanitarian over legal to clinical issues.
This activism does not only comprise of Ukrainian nationals inside and outside the country, but also of foreigners, not seldomly of Western decent inside and outside Ukraine. While the motivation to engage might vary as much as the forms of engagement themselves, and can be rooted in good intentions, it cannot always be taken for granted that they are perceived like that by locals or that their potential impact to the „activized“ society automatically justifies the risk of being potentially harmful on another level. The Western blindness towards this trade-off is backed up by how Western academia has in large parts failed to acknowledge the power disparities between Western and Post-Soviet Europe.
Unlike regions with a pronounced and often still very present past of being colonized, for and from which critical academic reflection including educational approaches exist and have gained some attention among Western scholars and practitioners, there seems to be very little awareness of such perspectives being valid for the Post-Soviet context as well. When it comes to Post-Soviet Europe, it seems like scholars and practitioners have not even started entertaining the idea that including such a debate in the preparation for engaging in Post-Soviet societies might be actually useful and ethically necessary.
How a local might feel about the presence of a Western foreigner enrolled in post-conflict activism in another country was presented to me by Zhenya in the context of Viadrinicum, a summer school program with an emphasis on finding hybrid solutions to hybrid conflicts focusing on Ukraine, hosted by the European University Viadrina in Frankfurt (Oder) / Germany. Over a conversation getting to know each other, I laid out my ideas and still very early plans I had for a conflict transformation project in Eastern Ukraine sponsored by a German non-profit cultural association. Zhenya had some questions about it, which over time became more personal and before I knew it the conversation had become an interrogation with me rather trying to explain myself than actually answering questions. It was tense and even though I did not know Zhenya before this conversation and therefore was not able to identify whether the tension was due to Zhenya’s personality or to our topic at hand, it did not take me a lot to understand, which soon was to verbalized to me and can be gently summarized in one sentence. Zhenya was very unhappy about my plans and unshy in elaborating on the concerns subsequently. The conversation and it’s intensity stuck with for days and let me reflect on the topic, first specifically and then on a more abstract level about similar arguments I had heard or read about before. Finally, I decided to write them down and present them in the context of the Media Lab Workshop, with the permission of Zhenya. Here is a summary of my reflection, in parts consisting of concerns shared by Zhenya, and my own experiences.
 Noted that this is not the persons real name. I picked the name Zhenya in order to make clear the person is a local from post-conflict Ukraine in the authentic and legitimate position to address these kinds of concerns. At the same time, I picked a unisex name in order to prevent any kinds of attempts to identify Zhenya in real life.
Regardless of what one might want to call the East, there is a universe of stories, fictional and non-fictional, which construct the East as adventurous, savage, uncivilized. Images and imaginations that, besides the similar complexion of the pigment, could easily stem from Colonial novels of the 19th century, fly around in pop culture and media. Western movies picture Eastern European men mostly in the role of the villain, rude and crude and simple-minded and women in the role of a devious femme fatale or the traditional, obedient house-wife in a mail-order-bride dating-show recently screened in German television. Is it outlandish then that a local might assume that a Westerner coming to the East could at least subconsciously influenced by those imaginations?
Especially in the context of post-conflict engagement, and this without regional restrictions, outsiders are privileged in way locals are not. They come on volition and, unlike many locals, are free to go, whenever they want. This freedom, unwillingly, potentially transports a minimization and non-recognition of the lack of privilege on the side of the local. Why would someone want to work in or just visit an area that many people try to get away from? Jealousy of the privilege might also play a role, but it does not require the presence of an outsider. So, the ignorance towards the situation of the local seems to be, what really hurts here.
Paternalization, (Ethical) Supremacy and Subordination
Whatever drives a foreigner to engage in post-conflict societies is first and foremost self-interest. It might be his or her job (and the subsequent payment), a boost of his or her career, or one of so many other reasons, including Samaritanism, and this is at the very latest, where the trouble starts. Locals might (probably correctly) regard the foreigner’s engagement being rooted in an assumption that the local society is incapable or even (childishly) unwilling to take care of their situation themselves. This does not only put the foreigner in a superior subject position towards the belittled local object. Also, the local becomes the cause of an action of self-self-sacrifice by the foreigner, owing the foreigner gratitude and maybe even an apology.
This is a very specific yet frequent scenario that works not only in the post-conflict context, but in every kind of externally funded international cooperation. If an externally funded project is equally accessible by local and foreign organizations and the selection criteria is not transparent, every funding of foreign people and organizations might feel like stolen assets from the point of view of a local.
(Re-)Production of stereotypes based on limited, incomplete and/or one-sided experiences
Locals of post-conflict societies might not be experts of conflicts per se, but they are expert of their conflict, unlike foreigners, who might be professionals in the field, but surely not in this specific case. What, if they talk to the other side and believe them? Are they intoxicated by their respective media and academy? What if they fail to ask the right questions, because they do not know about what matters locally? How profound can their assessment of the situation possibly be, given the time allowed? These or similar questions might make a local feel unease about the presence of a foreigner in a post-conflict environment.
I do not say that the list of possible concerns is complete. Neither do I say that all locals in all post-conflict societies share them, nor that they apply to all foreigners in all facets of post-conflict engagement. But some of them surely do. Also, I do not have a solution for that. I think that the notion that foreigners should stay home goes a little bit too far for a number of reasons. First, as a German citizen and a professional from the field, I have seen how different forms of foreign post-conflict engagement including absence can lead to very different results. Secondly, who defines who is a foreigner and where I am allowed to conduct my work subsequently? In Europe, only in Germany, only in my federal state, only in my home town? Finally, I am convinced that there are contributions a foreigner can make to post-conflict societies without causing damage.
What I was able to do over the last years is establishing a moral compass for myself, which consists of two needles. The first needle shows me to be aware of how the locals might perceive me and my presence, to listen to them, take their concerns and arguments seriously and be grateful for them sharing them with me. This is not only for ethical, but also for practical reasons. It helps me conduct my work with a deeper understanding about how locals make sense of the situation, themselves, and those who got involved. It helps me to meet my project partner with humility, at eye-level, and to avoid the traps outlined above. It reminds me that after all I am a guest, and maybe not even an invited one. The second needle shows me to be aware of myself. To constantly check on myself, how, if, and to what extend the concerns actually do apply to me and what do I do about it. Because it is tempting to just call it a trade-off and then ignore the concerns or dismiss them altogether. But if I would do that, then I should really better stay home.